In candid moment, Bernanke lets out the truth

I love it when a reporter catches a high-profile official letting down his guard:

SEWARD, NE—Claiming he wasn’t afraid to let everyone in attendance know about “the real mess we’re in,” Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke reportedly got drunk Tuesday and told everyone at Elwood’s Corner Tavern about how absolutely fucked the U.S. economy actually is.

Bernanke, who sources confirmed was “totally sloshed,” arrived at the drinking establishment at approximately 5:30 p.m., ensconced himself upon a bar stool, and consumed several bottles of Miller High Life and a half-dozen shots of whiskey while loudly proclaiming to any patron who would listen that the economic outlook was “pretty goddamned awful if you want the God’s honest truth.”

“Look, they don’t want anyone except for the Washington, D.C. bigwigs to know how bad shit really is,” said Bernanke, slurring his words as he spoke. “Mounting debt exacerbated—and not relieved—by unchecked consumption, spiraling interest rates, and the grim realities of an inevitable worldwide energy crisis are projected to leave our entire economy in the shitter for, like, a generation, man, I’m telling you.”

“And hell, as long as we’re being honest, I might as well tell you that a truer estimate of the U.S. unemployment rate is actually up around 16 percent, with a 0.7 percent annual rate of economic growth if we’re lucky—if we’re lucky,” continued Bernanke, nearly knocking a full beer over while gesturing with his hands…

…Numerous bar patrons slowly nodded in agreement as Bernanke went on to suggest the United States could pass three or four more stimulus packages and “it wouldn’t even matter.”

“You think that’s going to create long-term economic growth, let alone promote job creation?” Bernanke said. “We’re way beyond that, my friend. There are no jobs, okay? There’s nothing. I think that calls for another drink, don’t you?”

While using beer bottles and pretzel sticks in an attempt to explain to the bartender the importance of infusing $650 billion into the bond market, the inebriated Fed chairman nearly fell off his stool and had to be held up by the patron sitting next to him.

Another bargoer confirmed Bernanke stood about 2 inches from her face and sprayed her with saliva, claiming inflation was going to “totally screw” consumer confidence and then asking if he could bum a smoke.

“Sure, we could hold down long-term interest rates and pursue a program of quantitative easing, but c’mon, we all know that’s not going to make the slightest bit of difference when it comes to output, demand, or employment,” Bernanke said before being told to “try to keep [his] voice down” by the bartender. “And trust me, with the value of the U.S. dollar in the toilet, import costs going through the roof, and numerous world governments unprepared for their own substantial debt burdens, shit’s not looking too good for us abroad, either.”

“God, I’m so wasted,” added Bernanke, resting his head on the bar.

Customers at the bar told reporters the “shitfaced” and disruptive Bernanke refused to pay for his drinks with U.S. currency, claiming it was “worthless.” Witnesses also confirmed that near the end of the evening, Bernanke put money into the jukebox and selected Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” to play five times in a row.

Read the whole thing here.

And who knew Bernanke and I had similar tastes in music?

Prechter interview: Fed may be ended within his lifetime.

From Yahoo! Tech Ticker last week. Lots of market talk, then Prechter makes the case for truly free banking, in which banks could decide for themselves what to use as money. He beleives that most banks and savers would chose gold, as they have for most of human history. The first segment below is mostly on the markets — the comments on the Fed are in the second:

EDIT: Sorry, I didn’t realize that there are actually two segments to this interview. The comments on the Fed are in the second half:

At the end, Prechter makes a key point about the gold standard: it is not a free-market solution, because it is a “standard” set by the government. Essentially, a gold standard is redeemable paper money, but as we saw in the early years of the Federal Reserve (and actually in older times with many other central banks), the exchange rate between paper and specie is set by the government. Paper money remains legal tender and the primary unit of account, so citizens are forced to use it and the banking cartel can still inflate.

A much better solution is no standard at all. Under such systems, the unit of account was typically a weight of gold or silver. Hence the British pound sterling, which was exactly that (sterling is 92.5% pure silver). Under these systems, there were safe banks that earned money by simply storing metal and clearing payments. Interest was low, but inflation was lower or negative, since the growth of human productivity from improved infrastructure and technology meant that goods and services became more abundant over time, while the money supply grew only as fast as new gold was mined.

This is why the price level fell steadily during the 1870s in the US while the economy grew at its fastest pace in history, and why the price of a postage stamp in England remained the same for 100 years, even as the country grew rich. There were booms and busts and banks failed, but because even big ones were allowed to fail, bubbles remained contained and the busts freed up capital for productive uses.

Such periods will come again. This is not the end of civilization, just the end of a long credit inflation.

Civil Lawsuit, Allran vs. New York Fed, alleges cartel & Ponzi

Via Zerohedge, a suit has been filed in the US district court for western North Carolina by a group of citizens alleging that the Federal Reserve is an unconstitutional cartel and Ponzi scheme. Also named as defendants are several large banks and their CEOs, Geithner, Bernanke, Hank Paulson, Greenspan, John Snow, Shiela Bair and several other hacks and oligarchs.

The suit enumerates various “evils” committed over the last 97 years, but reaches way too far and dilutes the case by stringing together an overarching theory of a grand plot against the American way. Since it doesn’t stick to clear-cut issues of constitutionality such as the legal tender laws it is unlikely to get traction, but there can’t be a better place for it than in Western NC.

I take it as a sign of the times. It’s heartening to see people channel their anger about the economy into the study of banking history and take action that will at least open some more eyes.

Allran v NY Fed Reserve

James Grant: Put bankers’ own assets on the line again.

The market is the best regulator. After almost 100 years, it’s time we brought it back.


Jim Grant has been the living best banking historian since 1995 when Murray Rothbard kicked the bucket. Last week in WaPo, he put forth is old-time solution to banking reform: make bank executives and even shareholders personally liabile for depositors’ losses.

The trouble with Wall Street isn’t that too many bankers get rich in the booms. The trouble, rather, is that too few get poor — really, suitably poor — in the busts. To the titans of finance go the upside. To we, the people, nowadays, goes the downside. How much better it would be if the bankers took the losses just as they do the profits.

Of course, there are only so many mansions, Bugattis and Matisses to go around. And many, many such treasures would be needed to make the taxpayers whole for the serial failures of 2007-09. Then again, under my proposed reform not more than a few high-end sheriff’s auctions would probably ever take place. The plausible threat of personal bankruptcy would suffice to focus the minds of American financiers on safety and soundness as they have not been focused for years.

“The fear of God,” replied George Gilbert Williams, president of the Chemical Bank of New York around the turn of the 20th century, when asked the secret of his success. “Old Bullion,” they called Chemical for its ability to pay out gold to its depositors even at the height of a financial panic. Safety was Chemical’s stock in trade. Nowadays, safety is nobody’s franchise except Washington’s. Gradually and by degree, starting in the 1930s — and then, in a great rush, in 2008 — the government has nationalized it.
No surprise, then, the perversity of Wall Street’s incentives. For rolling the dice, the payoff is potentially immense. For failure, the personal cost — while regrettable — is manageable. Senior executives at Lehman Brothers, Citi, AIG and Merrill Lynch, among other stricken institutions, did indeed lose their savings. What they did not necessarily lose is the rest of their net worth. In Brazil — which learned a thing or two about frenzied finance during its many bouts with hyperinflation — bank directors, senior bank officers and controlling bank stockholders know that they are personally responsible for the solvency of the institution with which they are associated. Let it fail, and their net worths are frozen for the duration of often-lengthy court proceedings. If worse comes to worse, the responsible and accountable parties can lose their all.
The substitution of collective responsibility for individual responsibility is the fatal story line of modern American finance. Bank shareholders used to bear the cost of failure, even as they enjoyed the fruits of success. If the bank in which shareholders invested went broke, a court-appointed receiver dunned them for money with which to compensate the depositors, among other creditors. This system was in place for 75 years, until the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. pushed it aside in the early 1930s. One can imagine just how welcome was a receiver’s demand for a check from a shareholder who by then ardently wished that he or she had never heard of the bank in which it was his or her misfortune to invest.

Nevertheless, conclude a pair of academics who gave the “double liability system” serious study (Jonathan R. Macey, now of Yale Law School and its School of Management, and Geoffrey P. Miller, now of the New York University School of Law), the system worked reasonably well. “The sums recovered from shareholders under the double-liability system,” they wrote in a 1992 Wake Forest Law Review essay, “significantly benefited depositors and other bank creditors, and undoubtedly did much to enhance public confidence in the banking system despite the fact that almost all bank deposits were uninsured.”

Like one of those notorious exploding collateralized debt obligations, the American financial system is built as if to break down. The combination of socialized risk and privatized profit all but guarantees it. And when the inevitable happens? Congress and the regulators dream up yet more ways to try to outsmart the people who have made it their business in life not to be outsmarted…

For the record, I agree 100% with Grant’s solution. Moral hazard is THE cause of the de-facto bankruptcy of nearly every major bank in the US.
The US banking system pre-1913 was not perfect (unscrupulous bankers were always trying to use the power of the government’s guns to game the system), but it was much safer and more honest than today’s.
Bankers did not yet have a license to blow bubbles, since there were no black checks from their creation, the Federal Reserve, which can simply print paper money to bail them out in the inevitable busts. Before the Fed, their own assets were on the line, and before FDIC, the depositors’ assets were at risk. These two parties had a very strong incentive to keep lending standards prudent.
There were booms and busts, but they were localized, and at no time did the entire banking system become insolvent like it has been since 2008. Weak banks lost their depositors to those who had been prudent, and depositors knew that they were taking a risk when they chose a bank paying higher interest.
In sum, the market is the best regulator. It’s time we brought it back.

Discount window warfare

I glanced at the markets at 4:30 just in time to see every “risk” market spike down hard together. That kind of instant, coordinated movement only happens on announcements, usually something out of Washington. Turns out the Fed spooked traders with news of a 0.25% hike in the discount rate, the rate at which distressed banks borrow from the central bank.

For release at 4:30 p.m. EDT

The Federal Reserve Board on Thursday announced that in light of continued improvement in financial market conditions it had unanimously approved several modifications to the terms of its discount window lending programs.

Like the closure of a number of extraordinary credit programs earlier this month, these changes are intended as a further normalization of the Federal Reserve’s lending facilities. The modifications are not expected to lead to tighter financial conditions for households and businesses and do not signal any change in the outlook for the economy or for monetary policy, which remains about as it was at the January meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). At that meeting, the Committee left its target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and said it anticipates that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.

The changes to the discount window facilities include Board approval of requests by the boards of directors of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks to increase the primary credit rate (generally referred to as the discount rate) from 1/2 percent to 3/4 percent. This action is effective on February 19.

In addition, the Board announced that, effective on March 18, the typical maximum maturity for primary credit loans will be shortened to overnight. Primary credit is provided by Reserve Banks on a fully secured basis to depository institutions that are in generally sound condition as a backup source of funds. Finally, the Board announced that it had raised the minimum bid rate for the Term Auction Facility (TAF) by 1/4 percentage point to 1/2 percent. The final TAF auction will be on March 8, 2010.

Easing the terms of primary credit was one of the Federal Reserve’s first responses to the financial crisis. On August 17, 2007, the Federal Reserve reduced the spread of the primary credit rate over the FOMC’s target for the federal funds rate to 1/2 percentage point, from 1 percentage point, and lengthened the typical maximum maturity from overnight to 30 days. On December 12, 2007, the Federal Reserve created the TAF to further improve the access of depository institutions to term funding. On March 16, 2008, the Federal Reserve lowered the spread of the primary credit rate over the target federal funds rate to 1/4 percentage point and extended the maximum maturity of primary credit loans to 90 days.

Subsequently, in response to improving conditions in wholesale funding markets, on June 25, 2009, the Federal Reserve initiated a gradual reduction in TAF auction sizes. As announced on November 17, 2009, and implemented on January 14, 2010, the Federal Reserve began the process of normalizing the terms on primary credit by reducing the typical maximum maturity to 28 days.

The increase in the discount rate announced Thursday widens the spread between the primary credit rate and the top of the FOMC’s 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 percentage point. The increase in the spread and reduction in maximum maturity will encourage depository institutions to rely on private funding markets for short-term credit and to use the Federal Reserve’s primary credit facility only as a backup source of funds. The Federal Reserve will assess over time whether further increases in the spread are appropriate in view of experience with the 1/2 percentage point spread.

Ok, so they are finally going to tighten up a bit, just in time for the next wave of home mortgage and commercial real estate defaults. This is a deflationary action, and it fits right into the psychology of a top, where Fed officials would be expected to conclude that the storm had passed.

When thinking about Fed decisions, I assume that it is not actually foolish economists like Bernanke and crew who make them, but their cunning and wealthy bosses — Blankfein, Dimon and company. Why would bank execs want tighter credit at the Fed? JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs likely don’t give a hoot about 0.25%, but this could push smaller banks over the edge and into the FDIC’s Friday lottery, whereby their deposits are gifted to other lucky banks.

As for the significance of this for the markets, it sends a signal that I believe will often be repeated in the coming months and years: bankers do not want to destroy the dollar any faster than they can help it. Hyperinflation is game over for the banking cartel, since the value of debt (and therefore bank assets) goes to zero.

The Fed is likely to look tougher from here on out (and actually they have not created new base money for about 12 months), especially in comparison to their European, Australian and Canadian counterparts. The Aussies and Canadians still have to liquidate their housing bubbles, and it is a very safe bet that the high rates that have made for such a lucrative carry trade are going to fall hard, along with their currencies.

Don’t be surprised if the dollar climbs all the way back to its 2000 peak.

Who cares which sock puppet is Fed chairman?

So Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold are against Bernanke… good for them, but it doesn’t make any difference which egghead reads the February and July speeches to Congress when the very existence of a central bank is the problem.

Here’s what should be done with the Fed:


See also: Greenspan was framed! Blame bankers’ moral hazard, not their lackey.

The “other side” of the deflation trade

Graphite here. I remain an ardent deflationist and continue to see strong risks of a continued collapse in asset values in world real estate and equity markets. That said, one key practice in speculation, no matter how strong one’s conviction in a particular trade, is to understand the other side of that trade and how the market could move against your position.

This can sometimes present a challenge for deflationists because so much of the opposing camp is composed of die-hard Panglossian buy-and-holders betting on a V-shaped recovery, rounded out with a few gold bugs who present little or no argument other than that the Bernanke Fed will embark on a suicidal campaign of massive money printing.

Although Marc Faber has issued calls for hyperinflation before, the discussion in the video below represents a much more measured discussion of a serious alternative to the near-term bearish case for stocks and the economy:

“My sense is that — here I’m talking about the economy — that the economy, near term, can recover, and maybe the recovery will be somewhat lengthier than expected a crack-up boom, because the first stimulus package in the U.S. probably will be followed by a second one, and money printing will lead to even more money printing next year. So it can last, say, 12 to 18 months, and then we will get another set of problems ….”

Faber goes on to recommend buying financial stocks, on the expectation that the banks will continue to get free money from the government and parlay that largess into significant profits. His long-term view remains as bearish as ever, but he presents an important alternative perspective on how soon the economic calamity will arrive and what form it will take.

That said, I think Faber is wrong that the market will continue to enthusiastically take up the Fed’s offers of liquidity and use them to fuel speculation for very much longer. No one is laboring under the delusion that the garbage stocks like AIG, FNM, and FRE which have led this last leg upward are worth anything more than zero — and while from a contrarian perspective that could indicate that there is room remaining for investors to develop an even more desperate belief in a new bull market, I think it is much more likely a manifestation of the new trend toward skepticism which will come to permeate the entire market as the bear runs its course.

Whatever your perspective, it’s always fun to see Marc Faber’s characteristic chuckle at the suggestion that our wise overseers will competently steer us through the crisis.